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Asano Tadanobu: Japan's Reluctant Superstar

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

An escaped mental patient. A bookish, introverted librarian. A sadomasochistic crime boss who casually cuts off his own tongue. A suicidal husband and father. An afro-sporting zombie hunter. An average guy who can't get a date. Genghis Khan.

These are just a few of the colorful characters Asano Tadanobu has portrayed along the unlikely road to international superstardom. By all accounts one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people at work in today's Asian entertainment industry, Asano carved out his bloody place in cinema history playing some of the most memorably demented wackos to ever grace the silver screen. Western media often dubs him "the Japanese Johnny Depp", but the appellation doesn't really do Asano justice. Depp made his name playing lovable misfits in offbeat productions. Asano's misfits are seldom lovable.

Asano is one of those rare and wonderful paradoxes in the film world who has achieved the highest levels of popularity entirely on his own terms. Even after becoming one of the most bankable actors in Japan, he continues to appear in some downright weird movies that have almost zero chance of mainstream commercial success. Asano has never gone for the surefire blockbuster when choosing his roles, opting instead for unconventional projects that interest him personally. Fame is something that just kind of happened on the side.

Born Sato Tadanobu on November 27, 1973 in Yokohama, the boy who would become Japan's most famous film freak learned at an early age what it meant to be an outsider. His American grandfather made Tadanobu only three-quarters Japanese, which in a 98% homogenous country was enough for his classmates to label him "gaijin" ("foreigner"). Frequently taunted by his peers, Tadanobu withdrew into his own world of punk rock and painting. As a teenager he headed his own garage band with dreams of becoming the next Sid Vicious.

Fate - and his father - had other plans. Realizing that his taller-than-average, fair complexioned son possessed the striking qualities of a potential acting star, Tadanobu's dad convinced him to audition for a role on the long-running television drama Kinpachi Sensei. Tadanobu agreed, not out of any aspirations of stardom, but merely to help put food on his struggling family's table (this pragmatic approach to his craft would remain a hallmark of Tadanobu's career). The 16-year-old won the part on Kinpachi Sensei, adopted the stage name Asano Tadanobu, and signed his own father as his agent.

Young Asano was soon appearing in various television and film projects, and he quickly became known for his ability to play quirky characters with an understated intensity. It's still what Asano does best. With a bored glaze in his eyes or a smug smirk on his face, Asano somehow manages to convey the raging emotions churning underneath the placid exteriors of his film personas. This uncanny quality certainly goes a long way toward explaining the actor's popularity in a country where social decorum demands outward bursts of emotion be kept in constant check.

Future All About Lily Chou-Chou director Iwai Shunji gave Asano his first big break in the 1993 made-for-TV movie Fried Dragon Fish. The picture won critical praise for its portrayal of a reclusive shut-in (Asano) whose tropical fish collection somehow draws the attention of a beautiful detective and a band of assassins. After Fried Dragon Fish, Asano drew some attention of his own, winning a small but crucial role in Kore-eda Hirokazu's arthouse classic Maboroshi no Hikari (1995). As a seemingly happy young husband and father who inexplicably throws himself in front of a commuter train, Asano only features in the first twenty minutes of the movie, but his memorable performance stays with viewers, just as his memory haunts his widowed wife throughout the film.

Maboroshi opened the door to all kinds of opportunities for Asano. He won the Most Popular Performer prize at the Japanese Academy Awards for his role in the 1996 adult mermaid fantasy Acri, and made a memorable appearance in Wong Kar Wai's seldom-seen short film wkw/tk/1996@7'55", in which he and Karen Mok spend ten minutes repeatedly shooting each other in creative ways. But when he re-teamed with Iwai Shunji in 1996 for the big screen black comedy Picnic, fortune presented an opportunity of a different kind. Asano stars as one of three escaped mental patients who believe the end of the world is nigh and go searching for the perfect spot to have a picnic and watch the destruction. Playing one of his fellow loonies is J-pop singer Chara, who - like Asano - had cultivated a rather wacky public persona despite her reportedly unassuming personality. It was love at first sight. In keeping with their kooky reputations, the two were married in the middle of a busy Shibuya intersection.

The rising star made another lasting partnership in 1996 when he appeared in Ishii Sogo's Labyrinth of Dreams. Asano would go on to star in several of Ishii's ready-made cult movies, including Gojoe: Spirit War Chronicles (2000), playing the legendary samurai Yoshitsune, and Electric Dragon 80000 V (2001). Called "purposely ridiculous", Electric Dragon tells the story of a metal guitarist with electrical superpowers. For the misfit kid who dreamed of being a punk rock star, it was clearly role close to Asano's heart. A fellow music aficionado, Ishii eventually joined Asano in forming the rock band Mach 1.67. Although the group has never come close to duplicating Asano's film success, the reluctant movie star still insists his primary career is as Mach 1.67's frontman.

During this time Asano was fortunate enough to work with some of Japan's most legendary filmmaking giants, as well as many of the industry's future star directors. Renowned schlockmeister Ishii Terou cast Asano as a mentally unbalanced cartoonist in one of the director's final pictures, 1998's Screwed, and New Wave auteur Oshima Nagisa tapped him to play a homosexual samurai in Taboo (1999). He made a small appearance in anime director Anno Hideaki's live-action debut, 1998's Love and Pop (1998). But it was his leading role in another former anime-tor's first foray into live-action that set the pace for Asano's subsequent rise to superstardom. Ishii Katsuhito's improbably titled Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998) was only a modest box office success, but Asano's turn as an unflappably cool yakuza hitman in this violent, nonsensical action comedy endeared him to the Tarantino school of filmmaking. From Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, it was a small leap to Miike Takashi's Ichi the Killer, the 2001 movie that infamously cemented Asano's position as an international celebrity.

Miike had already earned a reputation for extreme gore in pictures like Visitor Q (2001), and Ichi the Killer was honestly marketed as the director's bloodiest affair to date. Many critics rightfully identified Asano's performance as the sadomasochistic yakuza lieutenant Kakihara as the only thing that saved the picture from being mere crass exploitation. Skipping about while clad in garish neon business suits, puffing cigarette smoke through the self-made slits in his cheeks, and nonchalantly hacking off the tip of his tongue just to make a point, Asano's delightfully depraved capering comes off as a nightmarish but almost hypnotically entertaining mix of Hannibal Lector and the Joker. Predictably, Ichi the Killer did not make a lot of money at the box office, but it got everyone in Japan and beyond talking about its maniacal star.

Following the unprecedented level of attention he received for Ichi, Asano almost went mainstream in spite of himself. His role as a homicidal keeper of poisonous jellyfish in Bright Future (2002) was familiar acting territory for Japan's favorite sociopath, but working with film festival darling Kurosawa Kiyoshi made the film another high-profile vehicle for Asano. The next year he made his most popular hit to date, starring opposite actor/director/comedian Kitano Takeshi in the 2003 remake of Zatoichi. The movie was a smash at the Japanese box office and an international favorite on the festival circuit. Asano was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2004 Japanese Academy Awards for his role as a desperate ronin working for yakuza thugs in order to raise money for his ailing wife.

Zatoichi was Asano's big success story of 2003, but far more meaningful for the actor himself was the opportunity to work with Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang in the same year's Last Life in the Universe. Although Asano's character - a shy expatriate librarian with suicidal tendencies and mafia connections who finds love in Bangkok - is far from normal, it's a much more subdued, even gentle role than audiences were used to seeing him play (Pen-ek wryly comments on this fact at one point in the film by showing Asano next to a poster of himself as Kakihara in Ichi the Killer). An oddly touching romance, Last Life in the Universe may not be a pop culture crowd-pleaser like Zatoichi, but Asano considers it one of his favorite pictures.

Back in Japan, Asano surprised fans with a truly audacious career move - he began playing relatively ordinary people. In Cafe Lumiere, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien's 2004 tribute to Ozu Yasujiro, he plays the owner of a small bookstore who helps a withdrawn young woman (J-pop idol Hitoto Yo) cope with her day-to-day life. Asano's old friend Ishii Katsuhito came out with his own Ozu homage in 2004, The Taste of Tea. The film not only proved to be Ishii's breakthrough hit, it gave Asano the chance to play the straight man for a change. As the down-to-earth uncle in a family of eccentrics, Asano is alternately dumbfounded and admiringly awestruck by the quirks of his daily routine. A celebration of life's funny little moments, The Taste of Tea is an atypically moving effort from Ishii and Asano. But Asano's most emotionally stirring film to date may be The Face of Jizo (2004). The movie stars Miyazawa Rie as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima struggling to get on with her life, and Asano as a shy researcher who may hold the key to her happiness.

Not that Asano completely gave up on playing the brand of offbeat characters that made him famous. As an amnesia-stricken med student in Tsukamoto Shinya's Vital (2004), he unwittingly dissects the corpse of his deceased girlfriend, and in Tagatameni he wrestles with whether or not to take the law into his own hands after his wife's teenage killer escapes from prison. In 2005 he costarred with Miyazaki Aoi as an experimental musician with potential healing abilities in Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani, and he donned a ridiculously oversized afro wig to play a wannabe jujitsu master battling the undead in Tokyo Zombie. A self-consciously witless comedy that unabashedly goes for cheap laughs and crass humor, this is the kind of project most A-list celebrities wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, but Asano is clearly having a blast. Fame, it happily seems, still has yet to gone to his head.

Weird as it may be, Tokyo Zombie is at least marketable to a certain niche audience. Some of Asano's most unorthodox projects can't even claim that right. Take the anthology films Survive Style 5+ (2004) and Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), for example. Survive Style's surreal interweaving of disparate narratives in part involves Asano's humorous attempts to murder his wife, who refuses to stay dead despite various injuries and dismemberments. Funky Forest, from Ishii Katsuhito, is even more out there. Asano and Terajima Susumu play two-thirds of the "Unpopular with Women Brothers" (the third brother is a fat Caucasian kid who does nothing but eat Snickers), who wander in and out of various skits that involve space aliens, alternate universes, and extended dance routines. At two and a half hours, Funky Forest tests the limits of even the most die-hard arthouse aficionados. Asano's goofy charm and clueless attempts to appear cool to women go a long way to helping the film succeed in spite of itself.

In 2006 Asano appeared in an unorthodox anthology of a different sort, the horror omnibus Rampo Noir. Based on the writings of Japanese gothic author Edogawa Rampo, the movie follows Asano as he makes his way through four gruesome tales by different directors. In true Rampo fashion, the film is both artistically sumptuous and profoundly disturbing, and Asano gets into some of his darkest territory since Ichi the Killer. After playing romantic leads and affable funnymen, it's almost as if Asano wanted to remind his audience of the edge lurking behind the lazy eyes and gentle smirk.

But behind the public image of Asano Tadanobu, the film psycho, Asano Tadanobu, the man, remains remarkably unremarkable. He still views his movie career as a means of putting food on the table, and his often bizarre acting choices prove how little concerned he is about his own popularity. The man whom many consider to be the coolest guy in Japan considers himself to be a bit of a manga otaku, and often agrees to film projects simply because they are based on a manga. He doesn't smoke or drink. And, perhaps most shocking of all, he doesn't really care for onscreen violence, calling Ichi the Killer "a bit hard on my stomach".

Asano devotes most of his spare time to his family and friends, often helping them on their own projects. He's been spotted taking his two young children to the zoo on his days off, and he directed several television spots for his wife, Chara. He's even starred in a few ads with his pal from Funky Forest, Kikuchi Rinko, who also appeared in Asano's fifty-minute independent directorial debut, Tori (2004). And of course, he and Ishii Sogo are hard at work trying to make Mach 1.67 into the next big musical sensation.

Most recently, Asano can be seen in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's 2006 follow-up to Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, and as another out-of-work ronin, this time for Kore-eda Hirokazu in Hana. He's currently lighting up Japanese cinema screens alongside Odagiri Joe in Sad Vacation, and he's poised to reach even higher levels of international stardom next year when the Russian-made epic Mongol makes its global debut. Director Sergei Bodrov handpicked Asano for the role of the young Genghis Khan in the first of a planned trilogy of films about the 13th-century Mongol conquest of the known world. With its sweeping scope and Asano's proven talents, Mongol is already generating a lot of buzz.

Will one of Asia's biggest movie stars finally conquer the West after next year's Mongol invasion? Only time will tell, but Asano Tadanobu is unlikely to care either way. After all, he's really just a frustrated punk rocker.

Published November 12, 2007

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